Twenty years of the most infamous literary fatwa.
Every year, all over the world, in the pages of thousands of books, hundreds of thousands of newspaper pages, magazines and journals – and now e-books, blogs and 140-character Twitter tweets, as well – millions upon millions of words are put into the public domain by tens if not hundreds of thousands of writers. Yet sometimes it can feel as if everyone is speaking at the same time – and no one is listening to anybody else. But there is one figure who seems to be to listening very keenly indeed. Not necessarily in order to hear what is being said, but rather to hear what he or she wants to hear, or even what this figure is afraid of hearing. This is, of course, the censor.
“Working under censorship,” according to J M Coetzee, who wrote some of his most powerful novels in apartheid South Africa, “is like being intimate with someone who does not love you, with whom you want no intimacy, but who presses himself in upon you. The censor is an intrusive reader, a reader who forces his way into the intimacy of the writing transaction, forces out the figure of the loved or courted reader, reads your words in a disapproving and censorious fashion.” Coetzee describes a time when the Soviet Union had about 70,000 bureaucrats supervising the work of 7000 writers, a staggering ratio of ten to one; if anything, he adds, the ratio of censors to writers in apartheid South Africa was higher.
With the collapse of the communist regimes, the handover of power in South Africa, and the advent of the Internet, censorship in many parts of the world may have generally been expected to decline in favour of freedom of expression. Yet, though the nature of the debate has indeed changed, freedom of expression today has become an increasingly contentious subject of debate all over the world. A committee of the worldwide writers’ group International PEN regularly collects and publishes a case list of writers facing pressures or threats for their work. According to its latest statistics, between January and June 2009: nine writers have been killed; another 13 killed for an unknown motive; six have disappeared; 136 have been imprisoned; another 72 have been imprisoned pending investigation; five are under ‘judicial concern’; 193 are on trial but not imprisoned; 21 have been given non-custodial sentences; 56 have undergone brief detention; 32 have received death threats; 56 have undergone other threats or forms of harassment; 42 have been attacked or otherwise ill-treated; two have been kidnapped; and one has been in hiding. In all, 644 writers across the world have faced some form of persecution.
Even as this article is being written, newspapers and opinion websites are engaged in a heated discussion about the decision of Yale University Press to publish a book about the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy – without the cartoons themselves. Not only the cartoons but other illustrations of the Prophet Mohammed, such as a 19th-century sketch by the French artist Gustave Dore for an edition of Dante’s Inferno, will also be excluded from the volume. The American Association of University Professors has condemned the decision for “not responding to protests against the book [but] anticipating them and making or recommending concessions beforehand … What is to stop publishers from suppressing an author’s words if it appears they may offend religious fundamentalists or groups threatening violence?” What should we do about self-censorship, which is the end result of the fear created by all other forms of censorship? In the post-9/11 world, these questions seem more relevant than ever.
A ‘bad Rushdie novel’
Twenty years after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, there are still lessons to be found in his story and the related death threats. “Self-censorship is the worst kind of self-censorship,” remarked the philosopher Susan Sontag when she introduced Rushdie to a college audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993. At that time, more than four years after Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for Rushdie’s execution, the author was still living in hiding. And with good reason. There was a bounty of a few million dollars on his head; the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses had been killed; the Italian translator had been stabbed; and the Norwegian publisher of the novel had been shot. Rushdie had come out of hiding to speak to his audience about terrorism. “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorise,” he said. “The only defence against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorised.”
A novel about migration, hybridity, loss, Bombay and London, The Satanic Verses had officially been published in Britain in September 1988. Turgid and verbose in many parts, the novel was not Rushdie’s best work. But within days, a much bigger story had grown around the novel – one that did not even require its reading. Twenty years later, this larger-than-life-or-death narrative is the one that continues to overwhelm. Perhaps it all began when India banned the book nine days after its British publication, thereby acquiring the distinction of having been the first country to issue such a ban. There were demonstrations and book burnings in other parts of the world, including Britain, South Africa and Pakistan. Several lives were lost in the protests.
On 14 February 1989 came Khomeini’s fatwa, calling for the death of Rushdie as well as that of his publishers. Protests continued in various parts of the world. In Bombay, ten days later, 12 people were killed in police firing during a demonstration. In an interview with the Paris Review in 2005, Rushdie was asked whether the whole situation had shaken his confidence as a writer. “It made me wobble a lot,” he replied. “Then, it made me take a very deep breath and, in a way, rededicate myself to the art, to think, Well, to hell with that.” The majority of the worldwide community of writers – including not only old friends Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens but also the eminent Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz – would come forward to support Rushdie. There were some exceptions: Germaine Greer, John le Carré and Roald Dahl were among the writers who declined to join the protests. “I refuse to sign petitions for that book of his, which was about his own troubles,” Greer declared. Rushdie himself would later find it possible to be ironic about the fatwa: “I think it’s a bad Salman Rushdie novel,” he later said about the whole experience. “And, believe me, it’s a very dreadful thing to be stuck in a bad novel.”
Writing about censorship in general and not the Rushdie affair in particular, Coetzee described the appropriate way to counter an offensive work: write another one disagreeing with it:
If representations, mere shadows, are indeed so dangerous, one reflects, then surely the appropriate countermeasures are other representations, counter-representations. If mockery corrodes respect for the state, if blasphemy insults God, if pornography demeans the passions, surely it will suffice if stronger and more convincing countervoices are raised defending the authority of the state, praising God, exalting chaste love.
For Coetzee, a writer who has spent several decades working in a regime of state censorship, censorship is a cure that is worse than the disease.
Rushdie, living under the protection of the British police and spending several years in hiding, responded to the death threats in the only way he knew how: by writing more fiction. Since 1989, he has written five novels, a children’s book, a collection of short stories, and two books of essays. He has also co-written the screenplay of Midnight’s Children. And indeed, the fatwa was not Rushdie’s first experience of censorship. In an essay in Imaginary Homelands, he describes that first encounter, which happened 21 years before the fatwa, “in 1968, when I was twenty-one, fresh out of Cambridge and full of the radical fervour of that famous year.” In Karachi, Rushdie was commissioned by a small magazine to write about his impressions on returning home. Although he does not remember much about what exactly he wrote – “memory is a censor, too,” he adds with wry irony – he does recall that it was not political. But after submitting the piece, he found that it had been banned by the Pakistan Press Council. Having an uncle on that august body, the young Rushdie thought he would meet him and sort out the matter. “Publication”, the uncle told him, “would not be in your best interest.”
Fortunately the young writer did not take this as an injunction against writing altogether. Midnight’s Children, his 1981 novel set in India, is as much about freedom of expression during the Emergency years as it is about Independence and Partition. Post-fatwa, too, Rushdie’s writing concerns itself repeatedly with different kinds of freedoms, creative expression and imaginative licence. The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) is, among other things, an expression of outrage about the Bombay riots of 1992 /1993 and the crumbling secular fabric of the city of Rushdie’s childhood. Even after 1989, Rushdie’s writing has come up against the implacable force of the censors. A television adaptation of Midnight’s Children was abandoned in 1997 when the Sri Lankan government refused permission to shoot. A film version is now planned by filmmaker Deepa Mehta, who is no stranger to censorship herself.
Pure, unpolluted stories
“The worst, most insidious effect of censorship,” wrote Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands,
is that in the end, it can deaden the imagination of the people. Where there is no debate, it is hard to go on remembering, every day, that there is a suppressed side to every argument. It becomes almost impossible to conceive of what the suppressed things might be. It becomes easy to think that what has been suppressed was valueless, anyway, or so dangerous that it needed to be suppressed.
And that has been the greatest lesson of the fatwa, 20 years later: that there are other sides to an argument; that the only lasting cure for failed dialogue is more dialogue.
Despite all his more famous clashes with the censors, perhaps it is in his children’s book, the playful Haroun and the Sea of Stories written for his 11-year-old Zafar, where Rushdie writes most eloquently about censorship and silencing. The first work he wrote after the declaration of the fatwa, the novel begins on a bleak note:
There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.
In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged, and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.
The novel is an allegorical account of the struggle between stories and silence, good and evil. Rashid Khalifa is the cheerful, inventive storyteller who makes up happy stories to tell the inhabitants of the sad city. No wonder, then, that he is known to his admirers as the Ocean of Notions, and to his enemies as the Shah of Blah. But not everyone loves stories. “What starts with stories ends with spying,” says Khattam-Shud, the tyrant of the land of Chup, an arch-enemy of storytelling. “Stories make trouble.” The two lands of Gup and Chup are very different. “The Land of Gup is bathed in Endless Sunshine, while over in Chup it’s always the middle of the night.” While Gup nurtures the Sea of Stories, Chup, led by Khattam-Shud, will do anything to kill language itself.
But stories will emerge nevertheless, like clear water from a stream. “The Source of Stories was a hole or chasm or crater in the sea-bed,” Rushdie writes, “and through that hole, as Haroun watched, the glowing flow of pure, unpolluted stories came bubbling up from the very heart of Kahani.” In later years, Rushdie would reflect: “It’s ironic that the book written at the most miserable moment of my life is probably the happiest book that I ever wrote.”
~ Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is a writer based in Bombay.